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The 10 Most Essential Record Labels of the Post-Punk Era You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (And Why They Mattered)

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Like the first few honeymoon years after a revolutionary war, the early years that followed the original year punk broke, 1976, were indeed the most glorious when it came to the independent record label. The burst of such led to hundreds of small independents spread across the UK and Europe, Australia and the US, most of which would manage but a handful of releases and fall under the sort of sub-grouping rubric of DIY labels. But between those and the indie labels of note from back then that we all know and cherish – Factory, Postcard, Rough Trade, Cherry Red, Beggars Banquet, Mute, 4AD, Creation, Fiction, Alternative Tentacles, et al – there were a pocket of others whose renown is maybe not very widespread but whose impact, either historically or musically or both, was, in the aggregate, incalculable. Here’s an even ten of them, in alphabetical order:


Begun in Boston in 1978 by Rick Harte to provide exposure to a new music scene overshadowed by its notorious counterpart in NYC, Ace of Hearts were responsible for not only bringing premier post-punk band Mission of Burma to the fore but as well the scrappy brilliance that was the Neats, Lyres, Nervous Eaters, Del Fuegos and more (Harte also, it should be noted, produced every album or single his label put out). The neat thing? Still in business. Check ’em out here.



A Brighton label that grew out of a band of the same name which in turn grew out of a record shop of the same name, all headed by a triple-threat entrepreneur by the name of Rick Blair, this is among the smallest of this group in terms of output – just 3 compilations and the usual skipload of singles – but it’s those three comps that lands it on this list. All called Vaultage followed by the year of their release (“..78,” “..79,” “..80“), each was a document of a scene about as far south of London as you could go before falling into the English Channel and was as indicative as any set of releases of how vibrant regional music scenes had become outside the dual capitols of London and Manchester.



A story full of seeming contradictions. Founded by Bob Last and partner Hilary Morrison in 1977, they were based out of Edinburgh and yet best known for issuing records by bands from the north of England (Human League, Gang of Four, the Mekons, whose”Never Been In A Riot” single was the label’s first release) – though they did eventually give the world a taste of Scottish in both Scars and the Flowers. And for a label of such apparent notoriety, they only managed to last a scant 2 1/2 years, perhaps proving more succinctly than anyone the old adage ‘Live Fast die young.’ Of course, in that time, not only did they provide opportunity to those mentioned above, Fast also helped out a fledgling young Mancunian band called Joy Division along the way, including them on their crucial Earcom compilations (short for ‘Ear Comics’).



Like Attrix but with the added handicaps of being not only more remote – effectively in another country, in fact – but further isolated by the Troubles, Belfast-based Good Vibrations is a story of a true beacon far more than any others on this list. Founded by Terri Hooley some time in the mid-70’s, the label’s sole motivation was to provide exposure to local bands that were being given short shrift due to the handicaps listed above. To this aim Good Vibrations released an abundance of 45’s in the late 70’s early 80’s, beginning ostensibly enough with Rudi, continuing through the likes of cultish post-punk popsters Protex to a band Hooley almost didn’t sign, the Undertones (“I wasn’t sure about them because nobody liked them. People crossed the road just to spit at Feargal Sharkey,” he said at the time.) Also like Attrix, Good Vibrations was a record store as well, and as to that, we’ll give the last word to Wikipedia:  “Good Vibrations reopened in 1984, closed in 1991, reopened in 1992, closed in 2004, reopened in 2005…”



Founded in Sydney, Australia by one Martin Jennings in 1980 and home to the Celibate Rifles, the Apartments, the Triffids, Lighthouse Keepers, Ed Kuepper’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns and eventually nearly all of Kuepper’s sterling solo output throughout the 90’s (the label in fact pulled back from the brink by those releases, as discussed here), Hot was one of those labels in the mid-80’s and into the 90’s that, when you saw it was on Hot, your interest was immediately piqued. Still in existence, if primarily a catalog label by this point, Hot at the time was one of the prime gateways to what was happening way Down Under.



Put simply, no New Hormones, no punk history as it’s written today. The UK’s first independent punk label, formed in 1977 by Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon, New Hormones’ place on this list was sealed with its first release, the seminal Spiral Scratch EP by Buzzcocks. Only the second self-released punk record ever (after The Saints’ “I’m Stranded”) and the first in the UK, it was also just the third punk single issued in the UK after “New Rose” by the Damned and the Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.” Though floundering financially for a while, and missing out on opportunities to release first releases by the Fall, Gang of 4, and Cabaret Voltaire, Boon and his legendary label were able to find their footing in time to step out from under the shadow of Factory and release records from Ludus, Dislocation Dance, Eric Random, and the Diagram Brothers.



Among this writer’s most cherished labels, Object Music represented the side of Manchester that was more about experimental pop with an idiosyncratic, somewhat more playful and delightfully off-kilter nature than the heavy hitters more responsible for bringing Manchester to the world’s attention (Joy Division, Magazine, A Certain Ratio, the Fall, et al). In a phrase, the musicians that made up the Object Music stable – and that emerged in large part out of the Manchester Musicians Collective, itself featured in this curious SEM piece a few months ago – were seriously whimsical while also being whimsically serious. In a word, they were, for the era in which they were embedded, unfashionable, which made them all that more interesting. Begun in 1978 by Steve Solamar as an outlet for his own band Spherical Objects, the label expanded to include the inimitable Grow-Up, Steve Miro & the Eyes- which was your correspondent’s introduction to the label when hearing this gem on John Peel in 1979 – and The Passage. Never in danger of bothering the charts, the label nonetheless lit an affectionate flame in the hearts of many that will never be extinguished.



Established in 1979 by Last and Morrison of Fast Product, this little Scottish sub-label-that-could quite nearly overtakes its parent entity in utter fabulousness. Limited exclusively to seven- and twelve-inch singles over a relatively short run (first single arriving in Dec. 1979 – “Confessions” by the Flowers – last 12″ appearing in Nov. 1981), Pop Aural nonetheless packed a mighty wallop, providing a conduit for Fire Engines, the wonderfully synth-quirky Drinking Electricity, Boots For Dancing, and the mighty Restricted Code. Short-lived though it may have been, Pop Aural’s strike rate was as impressive as anyone’s.



Begun as an offshoot of then-still indie Beggars Banquet, which had a distribution deal with WEA at the time, Situation Two was, initially, both a refuge to edgy, inscutable post-punk pop like the Associates, Biting Tongues, Nyam Nyam and Home Service (the label was also home to Lydia Lunch for her 13:13 release) and a viable avenue for such off-radar artists to find a potentially wider audience. That may not have penciled out quite like anyone hoped, but regardless that hopeful arrangement made for some thrilling records. One need look no further than the Associates for verification (“Message Oblique Speech‘ or the astonishing “Kitchen Person,” take your pick) but it’s worth remarking that Situation Two also hosted both Ministry’s second single (“Cold Life” in 1982) and Gene Loves Jezebel’s first two full-lengths, not to mention David J’s debut, Etiquette of Violence in 1983.



They may have only managed one full-length release (the Cravats’ Cravats In Toytown in 1980) but Small Wonder more than ably lived up to its name. Another label that grew out of a record store of the same name, this time in the east London borough of Walthamstow, Small Wonder was a virtual Goliath when it came to releasing the first records of bands that have long since traversed into relative legend. Founded in the late 70’s by the irascible Pete Stennet, Small Wonder would soon bring the world its first listen of Crass, Patrik Fitzgerald, the Carpettes, Leyton Buzzards, Punishment of Luxury and two unknown bands called the Cure and Bauhaus (the former’s “Killing An Arab” and the latter’s white vinyl limited-to-500 “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” both saw the heavily-shadowed light of day by the good graces of Mr Stennet). Such was the draw of the store, never mind the label, that young punters from the world over found themselves at Small Wonder’s doorstep at 162 Hoe Street, including, as it happened, your humble author, whose visit there in 1979 still lives imperishably in memory.

[The original Small Wonder-themed video of “Killing An Arab” that originally appeared with this article has been withdrawn so we’ve replaced it with this fabulous medley of Small Wonder singles, a more-than-worthy substitute, we think]: